Book Review: Foundations for Soul Care

Foundations for Soul Care by Eric L. Johnson
Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007

They now come regularly. Again and again, relentlessly, inexorably they appear on the scene, each one promising to point us in a better direction and take us one step closer to the ultimate, but never attainable, goal. What are we talking about? Books that promise to demonstrate how the secular “science” of psychology can be integrated with biblical Christianity. Sincere believers who are heavily invested in the world’s psychological systems either by their degrees, their positions in academia, or by their lucrative counseling practices seek the cover of these learned tomes to justify swimming in polluted waters.[1] At 702 pages Foundations for Soul Care is a valiant effort but concludes with the admission that the project of arriving at a Christian psychology will never be finished and the best anyone can offer are proposals pointing readers toward a Christian psychology (p. 609).

While much of the book consists of boiler plate arguments for integration several variations on the theme are remarkable. Johnson begins his argument for integration by stipulating the “scientific basis of most of contemporary psychology.” How can he be so sure modern psychology is based in solid science? Because it is “beyond dispute in contemporary academia!” Johnson explains that psychology is well grounded in science “because of its now voluminous, well-documented and replicated studies in areas like neuropsychology, cognition, motivation, emotion, social psychology, personality, as well as psychopathology and psychotherapy, a judgment confirmed by scientists in other disciplines” (p. 112). This, of course, is the logic of the evolutionist and the global warming alarmist. Scientific consensus equals truth.

Johnson’s embrace of a scientific basis for psychology can be seen in his discussion of the DSM-IV which, according to Johnson, “has to be considered a monumental scientific achievement” (p. 241). He continues, “The scientific and social value of the descriptions and the categorization of psychological disorders would seem to be undeniable” (p. 242). And again, “by any reckoning, the richness of descriptions of the DSM-IV is remarkable and its value for clinical work inestimable” (p. 243).

Foundations for Soul Care is a tour de force of arguments for, and explanations of how, psychology and Christianity are compatible and should work hand in hand. All the current buzz words of the day are employed (soul care, soul healing, spiritual direction, inwardness) and, freighted with the all jargon of academia, we are treated to discussions of doxological, semiodiscursive, dialogical/trialogical distinctives, the aretegenic nature of Scripture, eticospiritual maturity, divine illocutionary and perlocutionary intent, and constitutive, cognitive, and cartitive internalization.

The fact that Johnson is more serious about the psychological than the Christian aspect of his desire to integrate is obvious in his assertion that just one Christian psychology will not do. Indeed, according to Johnson, there will be many equally viable Christian psychologies that will arise out of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and liberal denominations. For Johnson, “it would be unworthy of a Christian psychology to downplay these differences. Rather than this being an argument against a Christian psychology, these differences will contribute to its richness and fruitfulness” (p. 218). So in Johnson’s integrated Christian psychology theology is not vital. What the Bible actually teaches is not so important as is the need to integrate it with the concepts of psychology.

Normally, we would not deem such a book worthy of notice on these pages but in one section of the book Johnson gives us an interesting glimpse into the thinking of an avowed integrationist about the biblical counseling movement and his reasons for rejecting it. Johnson claims that the Scriptures usually cited by biblical counselors to teach sufficiency (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:2-4) do no such thing. Instead, Johnson claims that Scripture promotes his view of integration arguing from the fact that the biblical writers often borrowed from secular sources (Egyptian proverbs, Greek poets, OT suzerainty treaties, and John’s use of logos) and an amazing interpretation of 2 Corinthians 10:5 (p. 121). Then, Johnson draws a somewhat bizarre analogy equating those who hold to the sufficiency of the Scriptures to those who held to a geocentric model of planets who eventually had to acquiesce to Copernican realities.

Johnson correctly, however, sees modern biblical counseling as a bifurcated movement. He identifies two camps, Traditional Biblical Counseling and Progressive Biblical Counseling. As you might expect, the traditional biblical counseling group are those who continue to follow Jay Adams. Johnson embraces all of the common caricatures of the movement: can become moralistic and insensitive (p. 108), focuses more on doing than on being, more on behavior than on the heart (p. 110), an isolationist, “against-culture” mind set (p. 111).

Progressive biblical counselors are just that, progressing from what he believes is the narrow outlook of the traditional biblical counselors and moving his direction, the direction of the integrationist. According to Johnson, the progressives are developing a more “complex model” of counseling. He notices a more “irenic tone” among them. They allow for a more “discerning use” of psychotropic drugs (p. 110). According to Johnson, all of this has come about because the progressive biblical counselors have been willing to respond to the criticisms of Integrationists like himself.

While Johnson has a somewhat jaundiced[2] view of what he identifies as the traditional biblical counseling movement his praise of what he calls the progressive biblical counseling movement should serve as a warning. Johnson commends the progressives who are moving his direction but there is no evidence here that he is moving toward them.

Johnson serves as the Director of the recently formed Society for Christian Psychology whose stated purpose is as follows:

A Christian vision of human nature is shaped primarily by the Christian Scriptures, as well as Christianity’s intellectual and ecclesial traditions. However, a Christian psychology will also be critically informed by other relevant sources of psychological truth, particularly its own reflection, research, and practice, but also the psychological work of other traditions (e.g., secular psychology), philosophy, human experience, and the other human sciences. While God’s understanding of human nature is the goal of a Christian psychology, given human finitude and the existence of distinct Christian traditions, the Society welcomes those working from any perspective within the historic Christian Church.[3]

Sadly, some of those identifying with this organization also identify with organizations that once promoted the doctrine of sufficiency. Will the fact that those who would fall into Johnson’s “progressive” camp, who serve on the board of this organization and identify with them, influence the organization to become more biblical? Or will these “progressives” instead be influenced toward a more and more integrationist approach? Many who once identified with us in the “traditional” camp have tried to have an influence by joining integrationist organizations and by serving on the boards of integrationist schools with no discernable movement other than their own.

This book should serve as a warning.

This review first appeared in the Journal of Modern Ministry.

[1] See our earlier review of Tim Clinton’s Competent Christian Counseling. It was a similar failed effort.

[2] And condescending

[3] From their website.

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